May 3, 2010

The Iron Man Interface: Part 2


Part Two: 

Intro to Interface


To begin at the beginning. 

How do we see Iron Man? That’s not a trick question; I mean it literally. What do we see and how do we see it? How is the film constructed and from whose point of view? Inexorably, the answer is Tony Stark’s. One of the major themes of the upcoming Iron Man 2 is summed up in Tony’s quote, “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.” Following up on the first film’s final line, the quote speaks to the fusion of man and machine, the essentiality of technology to Tony’s identity, and the self-centeredness of his character. In fact, it can be said that Stark’s inherent narcissism is key to his success as Iron Man. Who else but Tony could have built the suit? He alone has the know-how, the wealth, the means and the will—his narcissism both creates the problems he faces and aids in overcoming them. But more on that last point later.

Back to seeing—view points, eyes, perspectives. Tony’s worldview (political, social, later skewed to humanitarian superheroics) and Tony’s literal, physical view (his ways of seeing). That brings us to the Iron Man Interface. The IMI as I’ll abbreviate consists of two basic elements: 1) the user face (UI) technology employed by Stark Industries and in Tony’s home(s), and 2) the heads-up display (HUD) in his Iron Man helmet. The first element is broad; it includes every aspect of Stark’s life and work: the windows of his mansion which serve double purposes as computer screens, his basement work stations replete with televisions, computer monitors, video-equipped robotics, and the most integral aspect of the Stark interface, his manservant-turned-A.I. deus ex machina, JARVIS (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System). 


Stark central--the workspace. 
Surrounded by screens, Tony's world of UIs becomes our own viewing experience. 

The second element is specific to Tony Stark. The HUD is an extension of his personality, his lifestyle (the HUD is connected to Tony’s electronic “home interface”), and a clear demonstration of his engineering genius. Although as we’ll see later that the IM HUD adapts military technology, in the film the only way Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) can subvert Tony is by stealing his arc reactor technology and implementing a parallel suit and HUD design. In essence, Tony's only enemies are his replicas--versions of himself gone bad. We'll revisit that theme again in later entries.


The Iron Man HUD, in-helmet view of the display Tony gets inside his suit. 

Point of view cannot be underestimated in its importance in conveying information in cinema. Watching a movie is an inherently optical event: the cinema screen is a user interface. So is the computer you're reading this on, and so is the computer or television you watch your Iron Man DVD on. How you watch something informs what you're watching. Since the nascent beginnings of film criticism, viewing practices have been dissected and analyzed, film and sight have been endlessly compared and contrasted. I won't bore you with the details but anyone who's taken a film studies class knows about Laura Mulvey's "Male Gaze," the source of power and domination in a narrative film. You can read up on the conceptions of the gaze here, which may be helpful in this discussion of interfaces. 

Per the above link, it can be said that Iron Man fuses many of the types of gazes present in a film. All are allied to present the viewer with a comprehensive dominant viewpoint, that of Tony Stark/Iron Man. In the next entry, I'll be focusing on the film itself, drawing out several scenes as examples of how Stark's UI/HUD technology inform his worldview, how that worldview comes to stand-in for the film's dominant ideology and how Stark's status as an American superhero entwined with the military-industrial complex infuses the film with an unique but potentially problematic dogmatism. 

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